I assume most of you are familiar with narcissism in some way – many of us have had the misfortune to encounter these people at some point in our lives. Here’s how I found out it was possible to be grateful even after the excruciating pain of dating one of these evil schmucks.
I am not new to narcissism. In many ways I think I’m pre-disposed to attracting them. In my twenties the emotional pain from two narcissistic relationships in a row drove me into therapy to learn why I sought out relationships with these men.
Note: Although men and women can be narcissists, studies show men are more likely to have these characteristics. Whatever gender, there are a lot of them. Research indicates the numbers as high as 6% of our population right now.
Back to my story, which became much happier by the time I got into my thirties. From the work I did in therapy, I was now able to spot and avoid narcissists, both as friends and as romantic partners. For nearly 20 years I was in a relationship with a kind, supportive man who loved me unconditionally. Sadly, however, even great relationships can end. At 57 I found myself dating again.
Let me set the stage as I entered 2019. Like so many people who fall prey to narcissists, you’d consider me pretty smart and successful at this point in my life. I’d been sober for more than 30 years. My marketing agency was profitable, I had a supportive social network and I was feeling better about myself than I had in years. With the encouragement of my therapist and my closest friends, I embarked on a Match.com experiment. I challenged myself to have 20 dates with different men in 2019. I was going to reflect on what I liked, what I didn’t, my overall experiences and at some point perhaps settle into having a boyfriend. At least that was my plan.
I went on 6 dates. Some were okay and some were not so great. It was the mix of neuroses, thinning hair and beer bellies I had expected, frankly – but with a pretty good percentage of genuinely nice guys.
Until I got to number 7. “Cam” was the emotional equivalent of a giant train screeching to a halt in the middle of my dating project.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever been love bombed by a narcissist but it’s a pretty heady experience. Like every good narcissist, Cam uncovered all my emotional buttons quickly and pushed every one. On just the second date, I found myself making out madly with him on my couch. By the third he was asking me where I’d been all his life, texting me constantly and using clever hashtags like #flusterherforever in his messages. He was smart, wealthy, had an impressive career and, due to genetics and probably more than a little Grecian Formula, looked much younger than his 65 years.
You would think at this point based on my past experiences I’d be noticing the red flags flying all around me. But like many victims of narcissism I ignored them. Vulnerable after my divorce I was enjoying all the attention.
Inevitably I began to feel him pull away little by little and as his personality began to change, I chased him even harder. Eventually I confronted him about the issues I was experiencing and the changes in his demeanor and it did not go well. After days of silent treatment punishment at this “transgression”, he broke up with me. Although I really didn’t understand his true nature at this point, I actually felt relief. I even wrote of gratitude in my daily journal, that he had “popped my divorce cherry” and I was glad to be past my rebound, and fully alive once again.
But of course that wasn’t the end. He came back – like they usually do – with a massive romantic gesture. He declared that HE was the problem, and begged for second chance, speaking of our “love” for each other. And that’s when I was fully hooked. (It’s called a Hoover for a reason. They literally start sucking the life out of you at this point.)
With narcissists, you actually become addicted to the relationship via a complex set of chemicals produced by your body as a result of the narcissistic manipulation. Narcissists use something called intermittent reinforcement to make the trauma bond that much stronger. After the love bombing phase Cam would offer just small, intermittent doses of the guy I first met, and usually only after a couple beers. At other times he would ignore my texts or messages, or simply act coldly when we were together.
Perhaps the addictive aspect helps explain why I, someone who knew a lot about this type of toxic relationships, was in denial about the red flags. In addition, while Cam’s behavior at times was representative of most narcissists, he was much more covert than others I’ve met. I now know narcissists can be introverted as well, and these people are sometimes the hardest to spot.
Although I still beat myself up for not acknowledging the flags earlier, I am glad that through my friends’ unwavering (and incredibly patient) support, journaling and other mindfulness methods I finally began to notice them. For example:
- Even four years after his divorce, Cam lacked any social life other than two friends who appeared to be alcoholics.
- He was estranged from two of his children, and had remote relationships with the other two.
- He refused to talk about feelings or anything to do with the relationship, claiming instead his actions showed how much he cared. (Yes they did, just not the way he meant.)
- He would punish me with silent treatment, often not responding to messages or ignoring me when we were together.
- He described his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend as horrible people who victimized him, and took no responsibility for his own part in the demise of those relationships.
- His stories changed over the months, and as time went on certain lies were revealed.
- His garage, yard and home exterior were impeccable. Inside, the home was barren. He used cardboard boxes as bedside tables and had little on the walls, except in his office. (Feng shui experts would say that your space reflects your life. Like all good narcissists, Cam’s exterior was bright and shiny while the interior lacked normal decoration.)
Frankly I could go on and on about the flags but that wouldn’t change how the story ends. Thank goodness that finally, after one particularly disturbing incident, I was able to pull back even further and my head started to come out of the fog. I began to question him directly, and to do a little sleuthing which uncovered more lies and manipulation. I soon realized I would have to extricate myself from this toxic relationship somehow, although I still felt incredibly addicted. On our last trip, I confronted him about his behavior one last time. At that point he morphed into the nasty, mean narcissist that was his true self. And we broke up.
I saw Cam one last time after that. In typical narcissistic fashion he sent me a romantic letter two weeks after our breakup, with a birthday card declaring “I was a gift.” It included a message gaslighting me with the idea if only he could handle “my anger problem” we could have had the perfect union. Determined to end this game I tracked him down at his local bar and found him drinking by himself and looking 20 years older. I was seeing him depleted of his narcissistic supply and it was startling. After a brief discussion he had what seemed like a breakdown – and I drove off in shock. Although I blocked him on all social networks, he still managed to make contact a couple times, but luckily witnessing his mental instability broke the spell for good.
Although it took some time to recover, I’ve now realized that even this mess of a relationship was a gift in disguise. Despite the pain, there are a lot of reasons why it was important for Cam to enter – and exit – my life. Here are seven reasons why I’m grateful to this man that I hope to never, ever see again:
- Just as my first two narcissists forced me to open up and face past trauma, this one cracked my heart open and got me out into the world again after being emotionally numb for a long time. Perhaps the universe knew it would take a sledgehammer to push my head and my heart back out there again, but like a lot of bad experiences, he literally woke me up.
- I learned what I liked and didn’t like in a relationship. For example, I had forgotten I was a big hugger and how much I loved live music. I learned I crave consistency.
- Fake though it was, frantic love bombing gave me back confidence in my physical and sexual self. Luckily I was mindful enough during the devaluation and discard phases not to lose my rediscovered self-esteem.
- I learned what was truly non-negotiable for me. I will never again try to adapt myself to fit what my partner wants, no matter how much money or success he has. At least an attempt at verbal communication and real intimacy – not just intensity – is an absolute must for me from now on.
- Even though my heart was tender after my divorce, it was not fragile. I learned I was still unbreakable. I was still the resilient basketball I’ve always been. The harder I get slammed, the higher I bounce.
- For perhaps the first time in my life I practiced extreme forgiveness and compassion on ME. I accepted my vulnerability in the situation and I loved me through it.
- Just like a physical injury that forces an athlete into physical therapy, visualization and other techniques that result in him or her becoming even stronger, I have worked hard to make sure I came out emotionally stronger in the end. And I’m back enjoying dating once again.
And so my gratitude this Thanksgiving goes out to the third – and hopefully the last – narcissist in this life. Painful as the lesson was, there has been immense benefit as I move forward. My only regret is for his next victim. I hope she gets out before too much damage is done.
As a final note, I realize that I came out relatively unscathed and I was lucky. My experience this time was pretty mild, however many men and women suffer terrible emotional, mental and physical abuse from narcissist, whether they be partners, family members or friends. I do not mean to make light of this fact and I am grateful for good therapy as well as good friends. I’ve also created links in this post to many resources that have been helpful to me.
If you have a good book or group, leave it in the comment section!